What Compassion Really Means

The past couple weeks I’ve been spending with family, fairly relaxed holiday break between terms of school. Normally I don’t have any TV, but with so much free time, and in places which do have TV, I’ve spent some time in front of it. During that time, I’ve seen one particular commercial a few times which has made me think. Not really in the way that they want me to, because I don’t even remember what product was being advertised. It begins with a guy piling up sandbanks in a downpour with a flood rising up on the other side where the camera is shooting from. As he’s working, the voiceover says something like “I was always told that it never hurts to help out.”

The word compassion means to suffer with somebody else. Yes, suffer. If your concept of helping people is doing only those things which are comfortable for you, then you aren’t being compassionate. There are definitely lots of things you could do to help others which aren’t going to disrupt your comfort, so I am not suggesting by any means to stop doing those.  But I do wish to challenge the mindset that that is enough. I know I have this mindset myself most of the time, so I am not speaking from a seat of judgement.  If I’m promoting child sponsorship or some other good cause, I will often make the point that $30 won’t even dent your comfort usually. Which is true, and sometimes it does help people see priorities, but there’s another level to it past comfort. So I’m speaking primarily from one of introspection.

The commercial is for some kind of painkiller. The idea is that he can go back to helping people because its comfortable again, and yay for this drug that is enabling him to help!  I’m not knocking the drug. If you can do the same thing comfortably thanks to this pill instead of uncomfortably without it, then I have nothing against using it. But the impression I got from the commercial is that he wouldn’t do it at all if not for the comfort-making drug.

The majority of our society has an addiction to comfort and doesn’t even know it. If you have access to a computer and enough spare time to read this, you’re probably part of that majority, as I am. I don’t suggest abandoning comfort simply for the sake of it; we can idolize the suffering lifestyle just as much as we can the comfortable one. But I do think sometimes we have to not just help from a safe distance; sometimes, often, we should be compassionate. We need to be willing and ready to step into the pain of others in order to help them out of it. I personally don’t think that we can really stop suffering of others without fighting through some ourselves.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.